Marijuana steadily creeps toward legalization

Is D.C. finally ready to let us toke up?

These are not your run-of-the-mill potheads jammed into the long, narrow classroom at Oaksterdam University, a tiny campus with no sign to betray its location on busy San Vicente Boulevard south of the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. A serious vibe fills the loftlike space, where rows of desks are arranged like church pews under exposed ducts. No one clowns around or even smiles much. Instead, eyes fix intently on a screen at the front of the darkened room.

Projected there is a photograph of a healthy marijuana plant under an array of lights. Tonight's subject is Cannabis 101: growing the weed in indoor gardens. It's delicate alchemy, as most of these students, who range in age from their early 20s to late 50s, already know. During the 13-week semester, many tend and keep notes on their own clandestine nurseries in bedrooms and garages scattered around Los Angeles.

Encouraged by instructors, and by the prospect of staking out ground-floor positions in the emerging world of "cannabusinesses," they cultivate popular varieties of bud while experimenting with soils, temperatures, and light sources.

From the rear of the room, a baritone voice pipes up—a student remarking on the crystalline texture of the leaves when the plants are raised under light-emitting diodes. "With the LEDs, it just looks way frostier than anything under the high-pressure sodium," he says.

Details get technical, as in any science class, but the larger lesson is clear to see. Here, as in many other places across America, the future of cannabis is being sown—and, make no mistake, it is a future high on promise.

Oaksterdam takes its name from a bastardization of Oakland, where the university began, and pot-friendly Amsterdam. Here, new growers and dispensary operators are being trained like whole legions of Johnny Appleseeds, soon to spread pot's blessings from one coastline to the other. Not that anywhere is truly virgin ground, but consider: The pro-marijuana movement has never had an army so large, politically sophisticated, and well-funded, even if supporters downplay the millions that roll in. Nor has it enjoyed such a frenzied period of media exposure, a startling amount of it positive.

Never has there been such a concerted thrust to legalize the drug nationwide—for medical purposes, for the plain old joy of getting stoned, and for a gold mine in profits to be reaped by those who control the multipronged industry. Together with a rapidly shifting public attitude toward pot and a White House willing to accept state medical-marijuana laws, legalization seems as inevitable today as it was unthinkable a generation ago. "We're almost at a zeitgeist," says one of the high-profile lobbyists making it happen, Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C.

   

"ZEITGEIST" HAS BECOME one of the buzzwords of the campaign—meaning, in context, a sort of coming together of favorable forces. St. Pierre, who can call on advisory-board input from the likes of Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson, is a glib former altar boy and preppy from Massachusetts who likes to wear a marijuana-leaf lapel pin. He says that in the past year, NORML has seen an unprecedented escalation of web-page hits, podcast downloads, new memberships, and media calls. "We monitor [newspaper] columns, and editors have swung in favor of reform," he says. Badgering newspapers and television programs to pay attention to the subject used to be one of the critical challenges for people like St. Pierre. Getting a meaningful dialogue started was half the battle. Now the buzz is self-sustaining, indicating the willingness of America, as a whole, to engage the subject.

"The first time, nearly eight years ago, I attempted to pitch a marijuana-related story to CNN, they literally laughed at me," remembers Bruce Mirken, a San Francisco–based spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The person who answered the phone burst out laughing. Now they're calling us. We've been on various broadcasts and cable network shows 21 times [in 2009]—at least a couple on CNN. We've also been on the Today show, ABC World News, really all over."

CNBC has run and rerun its recent documentary Marijuana, Inc.: Inside America's Pot Industry, exposing the booming pot trade and the sordid side of California's largest cash crop—the shootings, thefts, and arson fires; the homes in Humboldt and Mendocino counties gutted to make room for illegal indoor nurseries; and the secluded parcels of national forest planted with pot by Mexican cartels intent on cornering metropolitan markets.

In September, Fortune magazine ran the headline "How Marijuana Became Legal," as if the outcome of the fight were a fait accompli. "We're referring to a cultural phenomenon that has been evolving for 15 years," observed author Roger Parloff, who suggested that the critical, sea-changing climax might turn out to be a "policy reversal that was quietly instituted [this year] by President Barack Obama."

Ah, Obama. Many attribute a good share of the present impetus to Obama, the third president in a row to acknowledge smoking weed. Bill Clinton famously claimed he never inhaled. George W. Bush 'fessed up only after a private admission was secretly recorded and leaked to ABC News. Obama won the everlasting affection of the pro-pot crowd when he addressed the matter of inhaling and asked, "Isn't that the point?" He also elicited joyous whoops when he jettisoned existing Bush-era policy last fall and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and the vast federal antidrug apparatus to stand down in the protracted war with states over medical marijuana. No longer would private holders of medical-marijuana cards have to fear being busted by federal agents after picking up a supply of kush from the corner dispensary. Nor would dispensary owners have to worry about the feds.

For the marijuana lobby and its broader aims, the win was gigantic. It removed—for the current presidential term, at least—the daunting specter of federal interference, and turned virtually the entire U.S. into one big, wide-open game board. Pot advocates divide that game board state by state, believing that the surest way to overcome conservative inertia that keeps pot outlawed is to spread legalization keyed to states' rights to craft their own statutes.

Medical marijuana has been on the move since 1996 and is now legal in 14 states, including California, with at least a dozen more to debate it soon. Proponents predict it will continue to hopscotch from state to state much the way legalized gambling expanded along the Mississippi River and throughout a lot of the country in the 1980s and '90s.

"We believe medical marijuana will be in more than half the states in two years...and maybe 47 states in the next 10 years," says attorney Sean T. McAllister, who led a successful crusade last fall to get pot legalized in the small ski-resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. In a vote that was largely symbolic, given that possession remains a misdemeanor under Colorado law, 72 percent of Breckenridge voters favored changing local laws to remove any sanctions for private possession and use of less than an ounce of pot, meaning that, on the city's books at least, there is no threat of jail, no fine, and no danger of acquiring a criminal record.

McAllister acknowledges that medicinal use of weed is a wedge to help pro-pot activists gain leverage in advancing recreational use of the drug. "Medical marijuana is really leading the way, letting us see what a taxed and regulated market for marijuana would look like," he says.

As Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City, put it, "The face of marijuana isn't some 17-year-old, pimply-faced kid; it's an older person needing help."

The widening perception that cannabis is a godsend for sufferers of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other afflictions has partially erased its own entrenched stigmas, including a reputation for dulling the intellect. To be sure, the purported health benefits of marijuana—so vital to its broadening acceptance—are not without controversy. One website, CannabisCenters.com, boasts more than 240 maladies that respond to marijuana, from writers' cramp to cystic fibrosis. For prostate cancer, Huntington's disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and grand mal seizures, pot promises at least a whiff of relief.

But it's also a source of carcinogens. According to the federal National Institutes of Health, "Marijuana smoke contains some of the same, and sometimes even more, of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per day may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day." (On the other hand, someone smoking five joints a day probably has bigger problems than risk of cancer.)

   

THE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR POT LOBBY HAS used the drug's analgesic properties to press a more challenging agenda: to remove the barriers to recreational use, either through outright legalization or, at minimum, decriminalization, which, in most cases, means that being caught with less than an ounce is only a legal infraction comparable to a parking ticket.

On maps where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out 10 states—including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York—where the first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.

The image makeover is but one of the important factors now propelling the movement. Another: the violence and obscene profits of the drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument: If you make it legal, criminal dealers can't command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high—cash that would later be spent on bribes, machine guns, and smuggling. Licensed and fully vetted growers, operating just down the street, would render the murderous drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger. In the words of Mirken, "You don't need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser-Busch."

A good idea can become a great one if it involves making money—and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. Thus, at a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly makes sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.

Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-an-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount on arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning pot offenders.

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes a case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, both in generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of handling offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.

Miron's estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.

Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public databank at www.drugscience.org, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. In breaking down that sum, he puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state, and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year. Mirken concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But, he adds, "No doubt it's a big hunk of money."

   

WATCHING THAT MONEY FLOW to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change. Pro-marijuana forces, well-financed and increasingly centralized in New York City and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power. The New York–based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in D.C., California, and New Mexico. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros's Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix, and George Zimmer of Men's Wearhouse.

Nadelmann says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches, and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and to map out strategies. Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. He can rattle off lists of issues and locales—the drive that brought medical pot to Maine last year, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon.

As advocates step up the pressure, public opinion is shifting. A Gallup poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.

The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. He argues that drug prohibitions are a "golden goose" for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public.

"We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I've ever seen," Nadelmann says. "It really feels like a new age." In his view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance—formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000—and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.

While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today's market conditions and Obama's laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes in America. The biggest of these is irreversible—the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers weaned on Woodstock and flower power.

"A whole generation didn't know the difference between heroin and marijuana," Nadelmann says. "That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn't become drug addicts."

On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?

   

"WE'RE LOOKING AT A PERFFECT storm here," says California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D–San Francisco), who emblemizes that new type of leader. The former standup comic spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, grooving to the Grateful Dead. He is now one of the most-watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced early last year that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.

Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano's measure would remove cannabis from the state's banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes, and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence.

If Ammiano's bill fails—and many think it's too much, too soon—pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot this November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksterdam.

Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes on three campuses.

The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered more than 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid. "The response has been overwhelming," he says.

If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals, and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot. "Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215," he says. "We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It's not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something's possible."

Aftereffects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the country. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended the annual Hempfest in Seattle last year. In otherwise conservative Colorado, advocates staged a massive smokers' rally in Boulder, and voters are expected to weigh a statewide legalization measure in the next few years. In October, the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months. And here in Minnesota another such bill will be introduced this session (the last attempt passed but was vetoed by Governor Pawlenty).

   

REEFER ACTIVISTS READILY ACKNOWLEDGE that the quickening pace of change raises risks of a backlash. Intense concern already centers on the poorly regulated mess in Los Angeles, where a confused and largely paralyzed City Council has allowed the proliferation of more than 540 medical-marijuana dispensaries without regard to zoning or other restrictions imposed elsewhere in California.

Law enforcement was never amenable to legalizing pot, but the situation in L.A.—a black eye to reformers everywhere—can only galvanize the resistance.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-member California Peace Officers' Association, fairly bristles when confronted with the argument that pot should be made legal because it's no worse than booze. "What good comes of it?" he asks. "Right now, we have enormous social and public-safety problems caused by alcohol abuse...[and] by pharmaceuticals. What is the good of adding another mind-altering substance? Look at all the highway fatalities. Why do we want to create another lawful substance that will add exponentially to that?"

That line of thinking suggests that society today would be more sober and safe if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned—an argument U.S. history, particularly the era of Prohibition, does not bear out. "I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight," Lovell says. "I think people concerned about the social consequences of drug abuse will take on this fight. I think there will be a broad range of opposition."

Out in the streets, the counterinsurgency is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite the rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug.

A similar spike has occurred in New York, even though it was one of the first states to decriminalize small stashes of marijuana, 34 years ago. In fact, if there is a world capital for cannabis busts, it is New York City, where 40,000 people were arrested on pot charges in the last year.

Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine is an expert on drug-abuse patterns, and coauthor, with Craig Reinarman, of 1997's Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. "What we have in New York is what you could call an epidemic of marijuana arrests," he says. "The number one criminal offense in New York City is marijuana possession."

How is that possible, when pot has long been decriminalized there?

Levine explored the question by interviewing veteran and retired police officers, legal-aid attorneys, and jailed smokers, producing a scathing 100-page review of the NYPD. It became apparent, he says, that police—who have a vested interest in making as many arrests as possible—profit from pot, and often "trick" their suspects into violating a specific law against openly displaying the weed in public.

"Technically, [police officers] are not allowed to go into people's pockets," he says. "But they can lie to people. Lying to suspects is considered good policing. They say, 'We're going to have to search you. If we find anything, it's going to be a mess for you...so take it out and show it to us now.'" As intimidated young people—most of them ethnic minorities—empty their pockets of joints or nickel bags, they're charged with a misdemeanor.

Such busts are huge business for the police, Levine points out. Not only do they sweep potential bad guys into the system, generating vast databases of fingerprints and photographs, but the arrests also beef up crime statistics. Departments in big cities and small towns alike use the numbers to secure fortunes in federal funding. Street cops have an angle, too: They like to nab docile pot users—easy to find in poor pockets of town—at the end of their patrol shifts, when the extra hours filling out reports at the precinct house get charged as overtime. In the jargon, the practice is known as "collars for dollars."

New York's example suggests a system deeply invested in criminalization, one that is unlikely to back down. When contacted by a reporter for a response to Levine's assertions, an NYPD spokesman demanded an email query and hung up. Three were sent; none were answered.

Levine says his research has pointed to the same pattern in other American cities. "Atlanta and Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago...." He rattles off a long list. "The Southwest is really bad. Houston...San Antonio."

El Paso is another place where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year's time just across the border in Juárez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. "Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily," says O'Rourke, whose 10th-floor office overlooks the Rio Grande and the impoverished Mexican metropolis beyond. "Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue."

The City Council approved the resolution without dissent, but it was vetoed by Mayor John F. Cook. An irked O'Rourke tried to override the veto, only to be strong-armed by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who phoned all eight councilmembers to make sure the matter was quashed. "You need to cut this out," Reyes said, as O'Rourke remembers. "It's going to be tough to get [federal] money for the community if you pass this."

Reyes, a tough law-enforcement man who spent 27 years with the U.S. Border Patrol, might have handled it differently if the resolution had only dealt with marijuana, rather than all drugs, says his press deputy, Vincent Perez. As it was, the resolution was defeated—and drug deaths in Juárez have continued to climb. "We're almost at 2,300 murders" for 2009, O'Rourke says.

NORML had a field day lambasting Reyes on its website. Much as in New York, where Levine's research has drawn nationwide media attention, the "intense blowback" over the failed resolution actually achieved what O'Rourke termed a Pyrrhic victory for the hard-liners and a step forward for those willing to consider change. "All of a sudden we had calls from all over the country," he says.

The psychological war is one the marijuana movement can win—and is why weed advocates will likely win, barring the unforeseen. It is not quite a done deal, however, because the question of pot use, for many, becomes a moral argument, and moral values are slow to change.

"People long for rules," says sociologist B.J. Gallagher, an author and lecturer in Los Angeles. "Without them, the world would be chaotic and unpredictable. We'd be having sex with each other's spouses, we'd be stealing things.... If we legalize pot, what next? Cocaine? Heroin? That's what people are afraid of. It's not the pot, per se. It's the bigger issue: Where do we draw the line? So they say, 'Let's not change the line.'"

But history shows that the line does change—eventually. "When a majority are saying, 'This does not make sense,' the line will shift," Gallagher says. "We've seen it with [alcohol] prohibition, slavery, women's rights. We're now seeing it with gay rights. Our moral values change over time, despite the objections of people who are terrified."

   

A NEW CLASS IS IN SESSION AT Oaksterdam, a how-to about opening and running medical-marijuana dispensaries. Dark-haired, bespectacled lecturer Don Duncan, a prominent pot man due to his lobbying efforts at Los Angeles City Hall and his ownership of a busy outlet in West Hollywood, warns a room of rapt students to be mindful of the rules. After federal agents raided his business in 2007, he says, the state Board of Equalization slapped a lien on his house for nonpayment of taxes.

"Don't mess with those guys," he says. Pay your taxes. Pay your rent on time. Don't drive a Bentley and take 'round-the-world vacations if you're running a nonprofit collective, "but if you earn a healthy salary because you work hard, that's okay. That's actually a very patriotic and American way of life."

Next to speak is Robert A. Raich, a leading marijuana attorney with a halo-like crown of white hair. He gets down to the nitty-gritty of applying for business licenses. Medical marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, even if the Obama administration is backing away from enforcement. So be creative when you have to fill out forms describing what you plan to sell, he says.

"Let me give you some truthful euphemisms," offers Raich, who seems to delight in presenting them: medicinal herbs, Chinese herbs, cut flowers, dried flowers. "You don't want to lie to the government," he says cheerfully. "You just don't want to give them too much information."

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